All posts by DestinationDuo

We are a couple who love to travel the world!

Our Ryokan Experience

Looking back on our trip to Japan, staying in a ryokan was by far one of the most memorable and unique experiences. I still look back fondly on our stay, because I had the chance to really experience the “traditional” side of Japan.

We chose to stay in a ryokan while in the resort town of Hakone. For those of you who don’t know, a ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn, where the rooms are lined with tatami mats, and you sleep on futons. While still very traditional, our ryokan had all of the modern amenities we wanted, including a computer center and in-room TVs.

Getting to the ryokan was a bit of a hassle, but not difficult. We took a public bus from the train station in Hakone to the ryokan’s stop. From the bus stop, we were only about a minute’s walk away. It was easy to find, because there was a large sign near the bus stop, pointing to the direction of the inn. The ryokan was beautiful when we arrived. The building was large and the exterior was set up like a traditional hotel, with a lobby and exterior corridors.

*Note: *I would highly recommend not bringing a large luggage during your time in Hakone. We shipped our bags from Tokyo to Kyoto through the Takkyubin service, and only had one large carry-on with us. Putting a large suitcase on a public bus would have been impossible.**

DSC05536Our Ryokan

DSC05482Hotel Room Exteriors

The room itself was fabulous! When you walk in, there is a place to take off your shoes and put on slippers. There is also a toilet and washbasin at the entrance.

DSC05486Sandals

DSC05487Sink

DSC05488Toilet

In the main room, we laid out our futons, and tried on the yukatas which were supplied to us.

DSC05489Main Room in the Ryokan

DSC05495Alternative view of the room

DSC05501Me in a yukata…how do I look?

In the main room, we had a seating table called a “kotatsu”. This isn’t any old table…it’s a heated table, with a heated pit in the floor below. Honestly, I loved this thing, and I don’t know why it isn’t more popular in colder parts of the world.

DSC05491Kotatsu table

DSC05527Heated Pit

DSC05529Warming Our Feet

Alex and I spent most of the night sitting at the kotatsu watching TV and drinking tea.

DSC05521The Channels Were Mostly in Japanese

DSC05530Tea Time!

DSC05518Tea Setup 

The ryokan also offers “Kaiseki”, which is a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner. The price of the room included the meal, and was offered in a communal dining room at a specified time.

DSC05523The Dining Hall

DSC05525Dinner

A word about our dinner: the food was very good, but also very authentic. The truth is that everyone’s English was very limited, and we did not know what we were eating half of the time. Sure, we had beef, mushrooms, rice, etc., but there were also many sushi dishes that were completely unidentifiable to me, even now. I also learned (after the fact) that one of our dishes was a turtle soup. This was a great meal for the adventurous, but I would be vary wary to eat here if you are a picky-eater. It would be VERY rude to come here and not eat your meal, so don’t bother going to a traditional dinner at a ryokan if you know you will not try everything that is presented to you.

After dinner, we went back to our room to relax in our open-air bath. Yes, you heard me right! We hot springs water on our outside balcony. The water was SEARING HOT. You may also have noticed that the room doesn’t come with a bathroom, but only a toilet. This is because the shower is outside. I didn’t even bother taking one until we got to Kyoto because it was so cold outside.

DSC05494Open-air bath. Notice the blinds for privacy!

DSC05492Open-air Shower

We went to bed early that night, after spending some time in the open-air bath and relaxing in front of the TV. The room itself was not heated, so we definitely relied on our futons to keep us warm. It was a bit difficult to get comfortable, though. While I actually enjoy a hard sleeping surface, I woke up in a sweat from the futon’s insulation several times throughout the night. Each time I threw the comforter off, I was freezing almost instantaneously. Needless to say, I did not get a lot of sleep that night.

Either way, I can’t complain about our experience at the ryokan. I would do it all over again, even with the cold room and the strange food! It was a once in a lifetime experience, and really one of my favorite memories on our trip.

Hakone Round Trip

In order to see Mt. Fuji, Alex and I decided to spend one night in the resort town of Hakone. It’s a small little town located in the Japanese countryside. Hakone is well-known for its hot springs and ryokans.

Getting around Hakone is both easy and scenic. We decided to spend a day touring Hakone on their public transportation system. You can purchase a Hakone Free Pass, which will give you unlimited access to the different modes of transport around the area. Most people use this pass to do the “circuit route”, which is what we did.

After taking the train to Hakone-Yumoto from Tokyo, we checked our bags into lockers at the station so that we could have the afternoon free to explore. DSC05373At the station

From the platform that we arrived on, we crossed to the other side of the same platform to jump on the Hakone Tozan Railway. Of course, we had to make a stop at the vending machines in the middle of the platform before crossing over to the red railway train.

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DSC05377Waiting to leave the station

The train took us through a hilly region before we stopped and transferred to the Hakone Tozan Cablecar. The cablecar took us to the top of hill, which then connects to the ropeway.

DSC05385Hakone Cablecar

DSC05384At the top of the hill

After getting off of the cablecar, we jumped on the ropeway, which takes you to Owakudani hot springs. On a clear day, the ropeway offers stunning views of Mt. Fuji. We were not so lucky.

DSC05386Ropeway

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DSC05394“View” of Mt. Fuji and Owakudani station 

The ropeway ends at Owakudani station, where you can walk around the hot springs, have some lunch, and even try black eggs!

DSC05402Owakudani

DSC05421Hiking

DSC05431Hot Springs Steam

You can’t go to Owakudani without trying the black eggs. These eggs are boiled and the sulfur from the hot springs turns the egg black. Legend has it that eating one will extend your life by seven years, and you can eat 2 1/2 eggs if you really wanted. I can’t tell you if it really works or not, but Japanese people can live very long lives, so I will try whatever they tell me to!

DSC05426Making Black Eggs

DSC05401Try them, they’re good!

DSC05412Don’t be deceived by his reaction, it tastes like a regular hard-boiled egg!

DSC05417Peeling the shell from the egg

We also grabbed some lunch at the restaurant in Owakudani. While it’s not five star cuisine, I would recommend stopping here for food. There aren’t many other places to find food along the circuit, and this is a good “halfway” point anyway.

There is another ropeway which heads from Owakudani down to Lake Ashi, where you will take a pirate ship cruise. I’m not joking!

DSC05433Ropeway Number 2

DSC05435Pirate Ship

DSC05441Alex getting on the pirate ship

The “cruise” takes about 30 or 45 minutes, and can offer stunning views of Mt. Fuji during good weather. Nonetheless, it’s nice to just sit and relax on the lake for a bit.

The cruise let us off on the other side of the lake, where we hopped a bus back to the Hakone station and picked up our luggage from the storage lockers. We grabbed a bus to spend the evening at our Ryokan.

DSC05459Right off the boat in Moto-Hakone

DSC05462Red torii gate in Moto-Hakone

Don’t forget, this can all be achieved easily by purchasing a Hakone Free Pass. While taking five different modes of transportation may seem intimidating, it really is foolproof. The connections will be waiting right in front of you to transfer you to the next stop along the route. You don’t have to worry about using maps or getting lost.

I also want to note that we were able to do this in one day, starting in Tokyo! We left before 9am, and were able to complete the journey and check-in at our ryokan by 5:00pm. Of course, you could always stay a few nights in Hakone and spend an entire day enjoying the circuit at a more leisurely pace, but Hakone is still very do-able if you don’t have much time!

Mt. Fuji, Where Are You?

Ahh, the elusive Mt. Fuji!! This was one of the things I was most excited to see in Japan. Unfortunately, we did not realize that it often goes unseen. We traveled to Hakone to see the legendary mountain and were disappointed to find out that it is usually covered by the clouds. In fact, we asked someone where it was, and they told us we were facing it!

We came here in March, and despite being close to cherry blossom season, we did not get the postcard photo-op that we had envisioned. Nonetheless, we were lucky enough to see the very top of it on two separate occasions.

The first sighting was at Owakudani, which is famous for its hot springs and well-known black eggs. Just to give you an idea of how foggy it was, here is a photo of the lift that transported us to Owakudani. On a clear day, you would be able to see Mt. Fuji from here, but visibility is incredibly low beyond the first hill.

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And this is what it’s “supposed” to look like. I took this picture from a magazine cover on the bullet train:

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Once we arrived, we found a reference picture that shows us what we are looking at. Very helpful, indeed:

mtfujiWhere Did Everything Go?

We found some helpful people who were able to point out that the very tip-top of the mountain was visible. While we could see it with the naked eye, our camera wasn’t able to produce a picture of the snow-capped summit.

DSC05429It’s there somewhere!

DSC05430Alex trying to point out the top

After Owakudani, we boarded a pirate ship cruise which is supposed to offer stunning views of Mt. Fuji. By now, the top of the mountain had disappeared 😦

DSC05440Boarding the Ship

While we didn’t find too much success seeing Mt. Fuji in Hakone, we had an unexpected streak of luck while taking the Shinkansen from Hakone to Kyoto. I happened to be sitting on the right side of the train, when a student in the seat to the left of us pointed out that Mt. Fuji was out the side of my window! We looked out, and sure enough, we could see a decent part of it!

DSC05561There it is!

So, here’s my advice if you want to actually see Mt. Fuji: It is more likely to be seen in the winter-time, between December and February. Don’t visit during the rainy season, because moisture in the air is high, and visibility is very low. Also, plan a visit in the morning. It is more likely to be seen in the early morning than in the afternoon. If you want to see the mountain with snow, don’t come here in the summer. There’s no snow on top, but you are able to climb it (this actually can be a very good reason to visit in the summer). Lastly, if you want to see it from the bullet trains, sit on the right side when heading West from Hakone or Tokyo towards Kyoto, or vice versa if you are heading East towards Hakone.

Mt. Fuji is one of those places that’s on nearly everyone’s bucket list, yet no one knows how difficult it is to see! I find it to be one of the most misleading travel spots, because everyone expects that they will be able to see all of it, and that’s not often the case. Even though we didn’t see the mountain in its entirety, we had the most wonderful time in Hakone. It’s an awesome town, and we would really love to go back. Hopefully, we will have better luck next time and will be able to see all of Mt. Fuji on a clear, sunny day!!

Tokyo DisneySea

I am not embarrassed to say that I am a huge Disney fan. I loved visiting Disney World as a child, and still go to Disneyland on occasion even now. So needless to say, the idea of Tokyo DisneySea was incredibly exciting! We only had one day to see Disney, so we chose to visit DisneySea over Disneyland, since we have one of those back at home.

We took the metro to Maihama Station, where we transferred to the Disney Monorail. The attention to detail is noticeable right away.

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DSC05223Mickey Shaped Windows On the Monorail

DSC05226 DSC05228Mickey Handles, and the Cinderella Castle

DSC05237Entrance to Tokyo DisneySea

DSC05238Daisy Duck Greeting Visitors

DSC05241Inside the Gates

DSC05244View of “Mount Prometheus”

Don’t forget to buy yourself a pair of Mickey ears! While you can find all of the Universal “Mickey Ears”, they also have a good collection of hats that are only found in Japan. A lot of the girls’ hats feature giant bows.

DSC05245This hat is so “kawaii”!

DisneySea has a nautical theme to it, with different “Ports of Call”. The layout is very similar to EPCOT, with different themes surrounding a large, central lagoon.

DSC05246Mediterranean Harbor

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Arabian Coast

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Mermaid Lagoon

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The American Waterfront

DisneySea has Tower of Terror, which is a free-fall thrill ride. The ride can be found at several Disney Parks.

DSC05252Tower of Terror

Even though we arrived on a Wednesday around 10AM, the Tower of Terror had already reached a 2 hour wait time. We had been to the Tower of Terror at California Adventure and Hollywood Studios, so we decided we could skip it.

DSC05254Tower of Terror Line

We had never heard of “Duffy” the bear until we got to DisneySea, but he is a huge Disney mascot in Japan. Duffy is really as big of a deal as Mickey Mouse. Duffy and Shellie Mae (his girlfriend) Merchandise can be found all over the park. DisneySea also offers Duffy and Shellie May food. We bought some Cranberry Popcorn that’s served in Shellie Mae buckets. It was so delicious!!

DSC05261Cranberry Popcorn, Yum

The American Waterfront is the Port of Call where you will find Tower of Terror and the SS Columbia, which is a large ship with a restaurant inside.

From the American Waterfront, we made our way over towards the Mysterious Island.

DSC05265Pirate Ship in the Central Lagoon Area

DSC05267View of the Mysterious Island’s Mount Prometheus

The Mysterious Island is home to “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and “Journey to the Center of the Earth”

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“20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”

Inside the volcano is the ride “Journey To The Center of the Earth”. It’s a roller coaster ride, and by far the most popular attraction we visited that day.

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DSC05270Inside the Volcano

I know, you’re wondering how “Journey To The Center of the Earth” was….Well, I’m sorry to say I can’t tell you! The line was 4 hours long…yes, FOUR hours!! I am not one to skip out on things, especially at Disney, but this was excessive. Neither of us was feeling that patient, and for the first time in Tokyo, we actually felt overwhelmed by the crowds. People say that Tokyo is a crowded place, but it feels like nothing compared to DisneySea. I’ve been to Disney World on Christmas Day, and it didn’t feel as busy as this!

Even the concession stands had at LEAST a 30 minute wait time. If you see in the picture below, the food stand is underneath the bridge, and I took the picture from the back of the line. At this point, we made the decision to just walk around and explore the park.

DSC05280Long Lines For Food

DSC05287

Crowds in the Mediterranean Harbor

Ok, enough about the long lines! Just be prepared to wait at least an hour for everything, even the smaller kiddie rides. Now, we did have some luck with food at the Zambini Brothers Ristorante. We were able to find a short food line because there was a show going on in the lagoon. This would be my best piece of advice when visiting DisneySea: grab some food during the showtimes! The food itself was pretty good, and it was nice to just sit down for a bit after walking around!

DSC05291

We left the park after lunch, having been there for a grand total of three hours.On our way out, we spotted Mickey! I noticed that the “main” Disney characters only show up near the entrance to the park, right inside the ticket gate. I’m not sure why this is, but we were able to see Mickey, Daisy, and Goofy in this spot. In case you’re wondering, yes, there was a line to see them too! Haha

DSC05296Mickey Mouse

While we had planned on spending the entire day at Tokyo DisneySea, I’m sad to say that we didn’t want to stay after getting there. I’m really glad we got to see it, but we were not prepared for the lines. I don’t know if I’d personally go back, but it’s still Disney, and if you don’t mind enormous wait times it’s still a cool park. The tricky thing for us is that we are fortunate enough to live semi-close to a Disney Park. Therefore, a lot of the rides and experiences were the same as ones we have back at home and it wasn’t worth waiting in line for hours at a time. But for most people, visiting Disney is a once in a lifetime experience, or at least a pretty rare one. And in that case, a visit to DisneySea would definitely be worth it.

DSC05301Waiting For the Monorail to Take Us Home

Tokyo Day Tour: Asakusa

Asakusa was our last stop on our Tokyo Day Tour. We took a ferry ride from the Port of Tokyo to Asakusa.

DSC05119

DSC05121

DSC05122Our Ferry

DSC05131Going Under the Bridge

DSC05134More Bridges

DSC05144Asahi Brewery Headquarters, Shaped Like a Beer Mug

DSC05145Beautiful Bridge

After a short walk, we arrived at the Asakusa Kannon, or Sensoji, which is a Buddhist Temple. There is a front gate called the Kaminarimon, also known as the “Thunder Gate”. It’s the building with the huge lantern.

DSC05159Kaminarimon

DSC05161Wooden Carving Underneath the Lantern

Inside the gate is the Nakamise Dori, which is a shopping street full of Japanese souvenirs. This was one of the best places for souvenir shopping, and you can find everything from a yukata, to tea sets, to food.

???????????????????????????????Nakamise Dori

At the end of the shopping street, we came upon the Hozomon, which is another gate leading to the temple:

DSC05171Hozomon

DSC05175Pagoda on the left side of the Hozomon gate

DSC05177Nice Bathroom Stalls

DSC05178Vending Machine Full of Hot and Cold Drinks

DSC05181Giant Sandal On the Side of the Hozomon Gate

DSC05183Main Temple

DSC05186Burning Incense

DSC05189View of the Temple From Up Close

DSC05193Prayer Shrine Inside the Temple

While we were at Sensoji, a large group of school girls came running up to us. I’m not sure why, but they were very excited!! A few of them asked to get their pictures taken with us, and it was nice to feel like a celebrity for a few minutes!

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Tokyo Day Tour: Imperial Palace

The second half of our day tour began with a delicious teppanyaki lunch. I will cover that later in a post about Japanese food.

After lunch, we headed to the Imperial Palace. It is located in downtown Tokyo, near the Tokyo Station. The Palace grounds are surrounded by a moat. We were not allowed to go inside the Palace itself, and it is closed to the public most of the year.

DSC05086The Moat

You can’t really tell by the picture below, however, the buildings here are only allowed to have views of the Palace up to a certain floor. After that, the windows are blacked out so that there are no views which would allow someone to see inside the Palace grounds.

DSC05090Buildings in Downtown Tokyo

DSC05092Pretty Trees

DSC05097Entrance Gate

DSC05101View of the Palace and Bridge

DSC05104Groundskeepers

DSC05105The Moat

DSC05106Trees Outside the Palace

 

Tokyo Day Tour: Japanese Gardens and Tea Ceremony

The first part of our Tokyo Day Tour with Viator included a visit to the Tokyo Tower. We had a great time there, but it was a very rainy and cloudy day, so the views were not as great as they could have been!

Our second stop included a trip to a Japanese Garden, where we got to participate in a Tea Ceremony. The gardens were beautiful despite the weather:

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We walked through the gardens into the Tea House, where we participated in a traditional tea ceremony:

DSC05014Outside the Tea House

DSC05018Being Greeted at the Entrance

Once we were inside the Tea House, we began the ceremony. The woman who performs the ceremony has learned to master this skill after years of practice and education.

DSC05019Tea Table

DSC05020Our Guide and the Tea Master

DSC05022Interior of the Tea House

We were given sweets before drinking our tea, called Higashi, to balance out the bitterness of it.

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The Tea is made:

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The green tea we drink back in the States is not the same thing that is served during the tea ceremony. We are used to the thin, watered down Arizona Green Teas, however this stuff is totally different. It’s actually called Matcha, which is powdered green tea. It has a bitter taste to it, and is combined with hot water.

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Interestingly, there is a special way to drink the tea. You must hold the cup in a certain way, and rotate it before drinking. You should also finish the tea within a few sips.

DSC05034With the Tea Master after the Ceremony

Tokyo Day Tour: Tokyo Tower

Alex and I were in Tokyo for about 6 days of our trip, however, we spent one day doing a group tour that we had found through Viator. It was an all day tour that went to all of the major Tokyo sites. Here’s an overview of our tour:

Our tour bus picked us up at the hotel early in the morning, and stopped at two or three other hotels before taking us to the main terminal where we officially joined our tour. Our group only had about 15 people, so it wasn’t too large.

Our first stop was to visit the Tokyo Tower. It looks like an orange version of the Eiffel Tower, and is actually taller. There is an interior observation deck, so you are able to have a 360 degree view without worrying about wind or rain, which were both concerns on the day we visited.

DSC04968View from our bus

DSC04969Downstairs

DSC04970Ticket Collection

DSC04971Elevator Ride

DSC04973

DSC04974Inside the Observatory

DSC04984View from the Tower

DSC04986Shinto Shrine inside the Observatory

DSC04989Rainy Day Views

DSC04990Alex Inside the Tower

DSC04993Look Out Below!!

DSC04995Glass flooring

Kawaii Culture

What is Kawaii culture? Kawaii is essentially the “cuteness” that infiltrates Japanese culture. It’s seen everywhere, from clothing, to toys, to behavior. It’s difficult to explain but you’ll know when you see it. People in the States would look at it and think “Juvenile” or “Young”, but here in Japan, Kawaii is not limited to adolescent girls. Adults, teens, and children alike like “kawaii” things. We most associate Kawaii with Hello Kitty and Pokémon, but it can apply to anything that is considered cute.

DSC05798Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building Toy

DSC05756Pet Shops

DSC05776Monkeys in the Pet Shops

DSC05318Dressing and Posing “Kawaii” 

DSC05403Hello Kitty

DSC05165Dog Kimono

DSC04955Bus Keychain Toy

DSC04844Sneakers

DSC04858Tamagotchi Donut Shop 

I definitely went to Japan thinking that kawaii culture was silly and only for young girls, but I may or may not have left with a Rilakkuma stuffed toy and a hot pink Hello Kitty suitcase!!

Japan Rail Pass and Shinkansen Bullet Trains

Getting around Japan is relatively easy for a visitor. In our case, we planned to go outside of Tokyo and spend a few days in Hakone (Mt. Fuji area) and in Kyoto. We purchased a Japan Rail Pass, which allowed us direct access to these towns.

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DSC05551Train Schedules. An English translation flashes up on the screen as well.

A Japan Rail Pass seems a little complicated at first glance, so I will try and simplify the information to give you a basic idea of how to obtain and use it.

These rail passes, operated by JR Group Railways, allow you to travel throughout Japan on Shinkansen Bullet Trains. The passes are only available to foreign visitors and Japanese nationals that live outside of Japan. Your passport must have you listed as a “Temporary Visitor”. We didn’t need to do anything special in order to get this stamp, you just have to be visiting for less than 90 days. I stressed about this part beforehand, but trust me, it will be stamped in your passport!

The tricky thing about the Japan Rail Pass is that it needs to be purchased *BEFORE* you arrive to Japan. You must buy an exchange order, which can be done through a travel agent. If you go to the JR Group’s website, they have a list of where you can buy exchange orders in your country. For us, we just picked it up at a local travel agency, and paid for it up front. You then take the exchange order to a train station in Japan, where you pick up the actual pass. Shinjuku was the closest station that gives out passes, so we found the JR kiosk and picked up our passes after giving them our exchange order.

While you’re there, you have the option to book your train trips, and can usually reserve seats. They have a giant book with the train schedule, and you just tell them where you need to go, and they will print out your train tickets. Do not worry about reservations, they will not fill up! No one else can book in advance either, so don’t worry about it. Our personal experience was that the trains were not very full anyway, with the exception of the ones headed into Tokyo. Even then, we had no problems with booking and finding seats together.

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Our first bullet train was the Romancecar from Tokyo to Hakone. We had lunch on the train, as they offer a small selection of foods.

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DSC05347Getting on the Romancecar

DSC05354Drinks from the ROMANCECAR Cafe in Shinjuku Station

DSC05360Lunch on the train

DSC05362Shinkansen Bento Box lunch

I’m sure you’re wondering about luggage space. There are spaces in each car that specifically make room for luggage. It’s a pretty decent space, and will fit two large pieces of luggage (or so I estimated). Additionally, there are spaces above the seats to store carry-on items, similar to what you have in an airplane. We brought an overnight bag, and sent our luggage through the Takkyubin service. This is a service that runs throughout the country and delivers your bags to your next destination. It makes it easier for you to travel without lugging around a big bag, and you can arrive with your bags delivered to your next hotel. I am obsessed with this service, and don’t know why more countries haven’t thought of this! It’s incredibly efficient, and pretty affordable. If I remember correctly, it was around $20 to send our luggage to Kyoto, and were able to arrange it through our hotel in Tokyo. I know a lot of people have trust issues overseas, but don’t worry, your bags will arrive safely! Our bag was even wrapped up to prevent damage!

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JR Pass is only available in 7 day, 14 day, or 21 day passes. This means that you can travel as many times as you wish on the JR system throughout the duration of your ticket. The ticket is activated on the date you choose, so all you need to do is tell the people at the kiosk what days you want your pass for.

Because the JR pass offers unlimited travel, it can be VERY expensive. We bought the 7 day pass, which was around $400/ per person. That’s a lot of money to spend, but if you use it wisely, it can be so worth it and you can get around the country very quickly and efficiently. I obviously would NOT recommend this pass if you are only going to be in and around Tokyo for the extent of your trip.

The last piece of advice I can give about the JR Pass is to arrive early! The trains are very punctual, and they WILL leave when they are scheduled to leave!

I hope I covered all of the basics! This is a great pass for exploring Japan.